Stenholm v. Neugebauer: Veteran-Newcomer Challenge

Like the 1956 movie "Giant" — which featured a hardworking, oil-rich west Texas, with its big sky country and long stretches of sun-scorched earth — the new 19th Congressional District promises to serve up a titan of a race this November.

Two incumbents — Democratic 12-term Rep. Charles Stenholm (search) and Republican freshman lawmaker Randy Neugebauer (search) — both say they have the right vision for the vast region.

"They drew a district to try and get rid of me, but the constituents say you can change the lines but you can't change the minds," Stenholm told

"No one campaigns harder than I do, and we're right on target with the conservative values of the people in West Texas," Neugebauer said.

Facing a tough squeeze after his 17th Congressional District was made more Republican territory following the GOP-led redistricting plan, Stenholm decided to run in the newly mapped 19th District, which includes historic plains and cities that bore the nation's oil industry: Odessa, Lubbock and Midland, where President Bush grew up.

The district also is more solidly Republican than it used to be, but is represented by newcomer Neugebauer, who joined Congress in May of 2002 after a special election to fill the vacant seat held by retiring Rep. Larry Combest.

Neugebauer, however, may prove to be Stenholm's toughest opponent yet, and he appears to have the full strength of the Republican Party on his side. On the flip side, Democrats say they are ready to defend Stenholm, a 25-year House veteran who has survived previous efforts to wipe him off of the Texas congressional map.

"Charlie Stenholm is a conservative Democrat who Republicans have tried to target before," said Nathan Gonzales, an analyst for the Rothenberg Political Report (search). Rothenberg puts the race in the "toss-up" column, with a slight tilt in Neugebauer's favor because of the GOP composition. Both the old 17th and 19th Districts voted heavily for George Bush over Vice President Al Gore in 2000.

Stenholm's appeal to Republicans and swing voters may lie in the fact that he is a member of the "Blue Dog" (search) Democratic coalition and known for his fiscally conservative approach to balancing the budget and supporting Social Security reform though personal savings accounts (search) and cost-cutting. He has in many cases bucked the party for his district, which included the cities of Abilene and San Angelo, where the people are known for their independence and social conservatism.

"Getting back to a balanced budget is a high priority of mine, and dealing with the trade deficit and the upcoming baby boom generation which will soon be qualified for Social Security," he said, calling the three a "perfect storm" for future economic crisis.

He added that a number of Democrats disagree with his approach, especially on Social Security.

"My answer is, just criticizing a plan without offering a constructive alternative, I believe, is unacceptable," he said.

Stenholm has endured several tough re-election bids in the last decade, including two years ago, when he beat Republican Rob Beckham 51 percent to 47 percent.

For his part, Neugebauer, a former businessman, is confident he will be returning to Washington next year.

"The people we talk to in this district are very excited by the race," he told

Facing off with a senior member of Congress wasn't exactly what Neugebauer had in mind when he took over for Combest, who unexpectedly resigned after winning re-election the previous November.

"I don't think my opponent or I were looking for this fight — the state Legislature did what they are entitled to do," he said, adding that Stenholm "has never had to go up against another incumbent before. We feel real good about it."

Neugebauer has a fan in Rep. Pete Sessions (search), R-Texas, who is running his own tight race against another 25-year veteran, Rep. Martin Frost (search), D-Texas.

"Randy Neugebauer has taken to his job as quickly as I have ever seen a new freshman do it," Sessions told "He has not only a sense of what he stands for, but what this team concept is all about. I think he will win by 10 to 12 points — that speaks volumes, as he's running against an experienced veteran like Charlie Stenholm."

Supporters of Stenholm doubt that outcome. They say his record includes years of hard work protecting farmers and the agricultural interests as the ranking member on the House Agricultural Committee (search), and add that he can't easily be reduced to just another mushy Democrat with no political connections in the state.

"His common-sense, conservative voice is respected across the aisle," Frost told "Also, what [House Majority Leader] Tom DeLay (search) and others don't see is that Charlie is tough and smart and knows how to win campaigns."

Neugebauer said veteran Democrats like Stenholm talk a lot about fiscal restraint, but they have consistently voted to increase spending year after year, and tried to block the president's tax cuts.

"I've voted sometimes with my Republican colleagues, and sometimes not, but frankly, my Republican colleagues have a vision for America, the president has a vision for America, and I have that vision, too," he said.

Gonzales said both men will get to test their mettle in this campaign, which promises to be as expensive at it will be lively.

"The challenge for both of them is to get known in the other portion of their new district," he said.

"Neugebauer is an incumbent and a good candidate. Even in a short period of time, he's proven he can raise money and works hard," he said. "But don't count Stenholm out, they've redistricted him before, and he's won."